Anne-Sophie Mutter inspires the human spirit through music in Warsaw the Phoenix - 27 April 2024

Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra 

Andrzej Boreyko


Anne-Sophie Mutter


Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)


Bedřich Smetana in ravaged old age

String Quartet No. 1 in E minor "From My Life"  

(orchestral instrumentation by George Szell)

String Quartet No. 1 in E minor "From My Life"

And so it is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bedřich Smetana. As I am unfamiliar with this work in its orchestral version and its genesis as a chamber work, I am eternally grateful to John Henken, Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, for the sensitive, illuminating information and deeply moving quotations contained below.

The Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrzej Boreyko gave a powerful and symphonic account of the orchestrated chamber work String Quartet No. 1 in E minor "From My Life". However, the American conductor of Hungarian origin who orchestrated the work, George Szell, seemed to have transformed this intimate, confessional, private character of the work into something rather more declamatory and public, therefore not entirely appropriate to the tormented confessional sentiments one reads below. It was however a fine performance of accomplished musical energy and power with the conductor Andrzej Boreko clearly deeply engaged in the fabric of the piece.

"In the summer of 1874, Smetana's health began deteriorating rapidly under the onslaught of advancing syphilis, and by the end of October he was completely deaf. He was forced to give up his post as principal conductor of the Provisional Theater in Prague and move to the country to live with his married daughter, supported by a meager and often delayed pension.

Though in poverty and pain, Smetana continued to compose, turning often to chamber music for intensely personal reflection. He wrote a pioneering programmatic string quartet, Z mého zivota (From My Life), Op. 116, in 1876.

“Concerning the style of my Quartet, I shall gladly leave judgment on this to others and I will not be angry at all if they do not like it, for it is contrary to the conventional style of quartet music,”

Smetana wrote to the music critic Josef Srb-Debrnov in 1878. “I had no intention of composing a quartet according to a formula or according to the usual conception of the form.... With me, the form of each composition is determined by the subject. Consequently this Quartet created its own form. I wanted to picture in tones the course of my life.”

This deliberate choice of a programmatic direction, though relatively rare in chamber music at the time, was a natural and instinctive one for Smetana. In the course of his operas and the great cycle of orchestral tone poems Ma Vlast, he had created templates for musical nationalism, portraying the people and places of Bohemia with vivid authenticity.

Smetana sent Josef Srb-Debrnov his manuscript score of the Quartet for copying. (When the work was given a private performance in Prague later that year, the prominent viola part was played by the young Dvořák.) He also described the work in some detail, even including some directions for interpretation.

The opening movement, Smetana wrote, depicts the “inclination to art in my youth, romanticism predominating, the unspeakable yearning for something I could not express or definitely imagine, and also a sort of warning of my future disaster.” Here Smetana indicates the portentous main motif, a sharply attacked whole note followed by a bitten-off downward leap. This is also the origin, he says, of the high, sustained tone in the finale 

“It is that fateful whistling of the highest tones in my ear, which in 1874 was announcing my deafness. I allowed myself this little game because it was so catastrophic for me.”

In the second movement, he continued, “the quasi-Polka carries me back in retrospection to the happy life of my youth when, as a composer of dance music, I frequented the fashionable world, where I was known as a passionate dancer.”

In the slower middle section of the movement – “my impressions of the aristocratic circles in which I lived for many years” – Smetana offers easier alternatives for the chords the violins play over the viola and cello, but pleads for the original version if at all possible.

The ardent, lyrical third movement “brings to mind the bliss of my first love for the girl who later became my faithful wife.”

The finale begins as a vigorous and joyful dance, which is abruptly cut off by that high whistling omen. Snippets from the first movement follow, and the movement ends with a fading echo of the dance.

As Smetana described it, the finale presents the “perception of the beauty of national music, and the happiness resulting from this interrupted by my ominous catastrophe – the beginning of my deafness; the view into a tragic future, a slender ray of hope for improvement, but remembrance of the first beginnings of my path still creates a painful feeling.

That was approximately the aim of the work, which is almost intimate, and that is why it is written purposely for four instruments, as though in a small friendly circle they are discussing among themselves what so obviously troubles me. That’s all.”


Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994)

The noble and fastidious face of  the Polish composer Witold  Lutosławski 
25 January 1913 -  7 February 1994 

Partita (version for violin and orchestra) 


Chain II - Dialogue for violin and orchestra

It was during my earliest remarkable encounters with Poland and working in Warsaw in the early 1990s that I first encountered the music of Witold Lutosławski. Already ill with cancer and frail, in his last public performance he conducted his Fourth Symphony at the 1993 Warsaw Autumn Festival. I have never forgotten this profound musical experience. 

During this concert I was accelerated back to my rather unusual reverse exposure to classical music. In the late 1960s, long before I was at all familiar with the conventional classical repertoire, I had attended concerts, listened to recordings and studied the fascinating 'avant-garde' (so-called at that time) scores of only living composers such as Pierre Boulez, Henri Pousseur, Iannis Xenakis, Mauricio Kagel, Cornelius Cardew, Krzysztof Penderecki, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono and John Cage. In 1968 I spent months in Cologne as a writer, not a musician, observing the astounding course and development of the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen.  

There is no greater musical and metaphysical experience than attending a concert of music performed by the  living composer himself.  This feeling was particularly strong when Stockhausen was 'at the controls' of his space craft in the mind-expanding space flights that one takes through the various Regions of his masterpiece Hymnen, comparable only to such works as Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. 

I have not remained the same being after listening to the version with orchestra in 1968 in Bruxelles. This work is perhaps the greatest truly contemporary expression of man's existential isolation, his attempts to relate across cultures yet at the same time aware of his subconscious loneliness floating like the atom he is in the vast and ever expanding cosmos.

One of the very greatest of all composers, Olivier Messiaen, was alive then (I remember his long, multi-coloured scarf illuminating a darkened Westminster Cathedral after a spiritually demolishing performance of Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum, a scarf as colorful  as his  birds flying below the abyss of the unfinished cathedral roof). 

It was the same epiphany experienced when I actually heard Lutosławski conduct his own work.

And so last night, many years later at the Warsaw Philharmonia, I was once again elated when catapulted back to my atonal and aleatoric youth during the Lutosławski 30th anniversay concert. One of the world's great musicians, the beautiful and elegant virtuoso violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter had come once again to Warsaw to perform works that  Lutosławski had dedicated to her, composed for her.

Thomas Mann, in his great musical novel Dr. Faustus, demonstrated that a composer can subconsciously express profoundly the torture and suffering of his time without fully realizing what he is accomplishing. 

Anne-Sophie Mutter

The mysterious and sensitive creature that is the virtuoso violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter once again took the Warsaw stage last night to play the Partita for Violin and orchestra with Piano Obbligato (1984/88) written for her by Lutosławski. I had first heard her play this work in 2013 in this same hall.

She had returned to the stage to perform these unique compositions created by mutual inspiration. Unusually for an instrumentalist of her great artistic calibre, she has a strong interest in performing contemporary classical works and many living composers have written pieces specifically for her.

However, on this occasion I felt a certain emotional turmoil and distress in her demeanor, quite apart from the black gown she had decided to wear. This appeared to me as an aristocratically restrained gesture of melancholy and seriousness , the full meaning of which would become clear. Previously she had worn a gown of flowing fabric cascading with flowers. Perhaps her darker disposition was merely a figment of my imagination ...

“Her extraordinary talent has inspired my compositional efforts, and I hope to be able to write even more for her.” Witold Lutosławski commented in 1988 about the virtuosity of Anne-Sophie Mutter.

The outstanding German violinist returned the Polish composer's sympathy, saying: "He opened the world of contemporary music to me. He showed me the colors of the violin, which I didn't even suspect existed."

Lutosławski dedicated several of his works to Mutter, including Łańcuch II . He also created an orchestral version of the Partita for her but unfortunately was unable to complete the planned great violin concerto, the solo part of which she could have performed.

The work appears to be divided into five movements. Three are conventional Italian Allegro giusto, Largo and Presto while two are marked Ad libitum. Throughout, her astonishing musicality, commanding technique and superb tone certainly concentrated the attention of the audience who listened in almost complete silence. 

The clarity and invention in the Ad libitum sections clearly benefited from her love of musical invention. The sound she produced was like gossamer threads woven around us. Breathtakingly beautiful. Unconventionally melodic, yet another example of Lutosławski's by now perfected 'controlled aleotoric' compositional method (despite the apparent inner contradiction of such a term).

Then the Interludium for Orchestra (1989) which was a Pianissimo work of truly sublime sensitivity, a type of vibration of the soul that hypnotized me absolutely. This was really one of the  most remarkable orchestral works I have ever heard. Mutter stood by without playing throughout this work like a statuesque musical Venus who had wandered out of Botticelli's Primavera. 

Then to the remarkable Chain II (1984-85) also a vehicle for the expressive heart of Anne-Sophie Mutter, a later version dedicated to her by Lutosławski after he was deeply moved the first time he heard her perform it.  The bloom of the sound of what I presume was one of her Stradivarius instruments, was glorious. I think the very best I can do is quote her own words from her website concerning this work and what it means to her:

Chain II

Lutoslawski chose the word "chain" to describe a principle of composition, which he discovered in the eighties.

"For the last few years I have been working on a new musical form, in which two independent layers are put together. The sections inside these layers begin and end at different times. This is why the name "Chain" was chosen."

It is a technique, which allows differently formed sections in the violin and orchestra parts to work together in Chain II. This dialog for violin and orchestra is a work commissioned by Paul Sacher, who co-conducted the premiere performance with me on January 31, 1986 in Zurich. 

The piece has four movements beginning with an ad libitum section. The violin begins alone almost in the same cadence. The second section, a battuta, is in the form of a toccata which is a strong contrast to the more lyrical beginning. Particularly moving for me is the entangled ending, which reminds me of a passage from Don Quixote by Richard Strauss, namely Don Quixote’s death.

The slow ad libitum section is wonderful because the violin can express itself to the fullest. Also, it becomes very clear that one has more time for interpretation, because the conductor and soloist can decide when a new section should begin. The fourth movement has the character of finality. It concludes after a short ad libitum in a furious finale.

Witold Lutoslawski on Chain II:

"I composed the first version of the partita for violin and piano as a work commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for Pinchas Zukerman and Marc Neikrug. It was performed for the first time by these artists in January, 1985, at a concert featuring my works and at which I conducted.

The new version for violin and orchestra (and piano obligato), which is presented in this version, was expressly written for Anne-Sophie Mutter and is also dedicated to her. I created this new version following the very strong impression that Anne-Sophie Mutter's performances of my Chain II left on me. Her extraordinary talent truly inspired my compositional efforts, and I hope to be able to write even more for her."

On the first occasion I heard her perform this work in 2013, addressing the audience in German after the concert, she observed: 

'Witold Lutosławski is a gift from God. It was 1985 when I first encountered his music, and it was a turning point in my life - he opened a window into the future. It was very fortunate. For me, Witold Lutosławski created the most perfect music.'

On that evening she and Antoni Wit were presented with the medal of the Witold Lutosławski Association. She was also given a statuette for her philanthropic charitable work for the Przyjaciel Fundacji Dom Muzyka Seniora - an organisation that provides assistance to elderly, retired musicians in Poland. 

Clearly Mutter is an artist, a woman of great emotional empathy and not a narcissistic, egocentric performer of which there are far too many today.

However, on this occasion she addressed us in English. Gesturing in a self-effacing manner to the score of the immortal music as she often does she reminded us in intensely emotional tones that we should realize how fortunate we were to be seated here in a warm concert hall listening to sublime music when 'People are being killed in war every minute!' Murderous conflict lies on the doorstep of Poland, the eternal buffer state.

For the victims, their suffering and the 30th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest of all modern composers, she announced she would play the spiritually healing and uplifting Sarabande from Bach's Solo Violin Partita No.2 in D minor as an encore. It was an extraordinary moment of profound, even religious, feeling and a deep silence reigned over the audience as she held us in her soul at the conclusion.


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